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|1979 Kurdish rebellion in Iran|
|Part of Consolidation of the Iranian Revolution and Kurdish separatism in Iran|
The epicenter of insurrection
Islamic Republic of Iran (1980−83)
|Commanders and leaders|
|Ashraf Dehghani||Masoud Barzani|
7,000 (according to the KDPI)|
A few captured tanks and light artillery pieces, recoilness guns and machine guns
|Casualties and losses|
|3,000+ killed (Iranian Government claim)||5,000 killed (Iranian Government claim)||–10,000 killed|
The 1979 Kurdish rebellion in Iran erupted in mid-March 1979, some two months after the completion of the Iranian Revolution. It subsequently became the largest among the nationwide uprisings in Iran against the new state and one of the most intense Kurdish rebellions in modern Iran. Initially, Kurdish movements were trying to align with the new government of Iran, seeking to emphasize their Muslim identity and seek common ground with other Iranians. The KDPI even briefly branded itself as a non-separatist organization, allegedly criticizing those calling for independence, but nevertheless calling for political autonomy. However, relations between some Kurdish organizations and the Iranian government quickly deteriorated, and though Shi'a Kurds and some tribal leaders turned towards the new Shi'a Islamic State, Sunni Kurdish leftists continued the nationalist project in their enclave in Kurdistan Province.
While at first, Kurdish militants, primarily of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, made some territorial gains in the area of Mahabad and ousted the Iranian troops from the region, a large scale offensive in spring 1980 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard reversed the course of the conflict.
Following the eruption of the Iran–Iraq War in September 1980, an even greater effort was made by the Iranian government to crush the Kurdish rebellion, which was the only one of the 1979 uprisings to still go on (Arab, Baluchi, and Turkmen rebellions had already been subdued by that time). By late 1980, the Iranian regular forces and the Revolutionary Guard ousted the Kurdish militants from their strongholds, but groups of Kurdish militants kept executing sporadic attacks against Iranian militias. The clashes in the area went on as late as 1983.
About 10,000 people were killed in the course of the Kurdish rebellion, with 1,200 of them being Kurdish political prisoners, executed in the last phases of the rebellion, mostly by the Iranian government. The Kurdish-Iranian dispute resurged only in 1989, following the assassination of a KDP-I leader.
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With traumatic experience during the Pahlavi rule in Iran and two major failed rebellions in 1946 and 1967, Kurdish political organizations were enthusiastic supporters of the revolution against the Shah, which brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in February 1979. The Shah had shown himself to be no friend of Kurdish aspirations for greater autonomy nor a loosening of Tehran's control over their affairs. Once again, from the early days of the Islamic revolution, relations between the central government and Kurdish organizations were fraught with difficulties and armed insurrection would ensue.
The Kurds, with their cross-border alliances, were seen as vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers who wished to destabilize the young republic. Sunni Kurds, unlike the overwhelming majority of their countrymen, abstained from voting to endorse the creation of an Islamic republic in April 1979. That referendum institutionalized Shia primacy and made no provision for regional autonomy.
The crisis deepened after Kurds were denied seats in the assembly of experts gathering in 1979, which were responsible for writing the new constitution. Ayatollah Khomeini prevented Dr. Ghassemlou, the elected representative of the region, to participate in the assembly of experts’ first meeting. Kurds were therefore deprived of their political rights under the new Iranian constitution, since the majority of them belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam.
As the wave of nationalism engulfed eastern Kurdistan after the fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty in line with a series of anti-revolutionary revolts across the country (in Khuzestan, Iranian Balochistan and other parts of Iran), a full-scale rebellion was imminent. Also, in March 1979, the KDP-I formulated and publicly announced an eight-point plan for Kurdish independence.
The uprising was born in mid-March 1979, when protesting Kurds took over control of police headquarters, army bases, and parts of army barracks in Sanandaj, after failure to disperse them by army troops. According to BBC, the revolt began, when Kurdish tribesmen overpowered Iranian militias in the town of Paveh. Allegedly, unrest then spread to other Kurdish-dominated regions as the Kurds took over towns and army garrisons trying to keep out the Iranian army, namely to the towns of Divan Darreh, Saqqez and Mahabad. Many Kurdish leaders went into hiding, after Khomeini ordered their arrest and murders. Iranian newspaper reports at this stage did put the number killed at about 600.
Since April 1979 armed conflict broke out between Kurdish factions and the Iranian revolutionary government's security forces. The Kurdish forces included primarily the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) and the leftist Komala (Revolutionary Organization of Kurdish Toilers). By late April, sectarian fighting also broke out between Kurdish and Azeri factions in the area, resulting in hundreds of Azeris and Kurds killed. One of the Azeri tribes involved in the fighting was the Karapapak tribe.
In mid-August, without sufficient preparations and regardless of army's advice, the Revolutionary Guard marched on the Kurd-held town of Paveh, falling into a major ambush. The defeat prompted Khomeini to approach the heads of the army and the government. The new Iranian Islamic leadership had little patience for Kurdish requests and opted for crushing unrest through military means. As a result, Khomeini, the new religious leader of Iran, declared a jihad (holy struggle) and a fatwa (religious edict) against the Iranian Kurds and key Kurdish nationalist figures were declared "enemies of the state", like Ghassemlou, in his statement on August 17, 1979. The government then began a three-week campaign to clear out Kurdish strongholds, mainly Saqqez and Mahabad.
On August 20, 1979, the Iranian army started the Siege of Mahabad. By August 30 it was reported they had managed to completely surround the city and three days of negotiations started. After this failed, Iranian forces invaded the city on September 3 backed by F-4 fighter jets and over 100 tanks. Backed also by artillery power, they managed to seize control of the town after just several hours of fighting. The defeat in Mahabad was a major blow to the Iranian Kurds, and afterwards Iranian forces continued to march on the smaller town of Baneh. Over 500 people were killed during the siege.
The defenders were overwhelmed by the power of the Iranian offensive, using heavy artillery, tanks and air cover, but managed effective resistance. Despite the heavy casualties, the bulk of Kurdish Peshmerga evaded capture and death, so they retreated into the mountains. The Kurds resumed their offensive six weeks later, returning to Mahabad and effectively fighting the armor forces of Iran with Molotov cocktails and RPGs. In the end of November, Kurds also attacked Sanandaj, Saqqez and other Kurdish cities and towns. Kurdish effective initiative continued, as Iranian government was distracted by other events in the country, such as the American Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.
In a speech on 17 December 1979, Khomeini called the concept of ethnic minority contrary to Islamic doctrines. He also accused those who do not wish Muslim countries to be united in creating the issue of nationalism among minorities. His views were shared by many in the clerical leadership.
The new Iranian administration of President Banisadr took office. In late January 1980, Revolutionary Guard units and government supporting Kurds unsuccessfully battled rebels in the region, resulting in a stalemate that lasted until spring. By May 1980, Kurds still controlled much of the regions' roads, rural areas and holding once again the city of Mahabad as their capital. The KDPI said that they control over 7,000 fighters at the time.
In the spring of 1980, government forces under the command of President Abolhassan Banisadr brutally conquered most of the Kurdish cities through a huge military campaign, sending in mechanized military divisions to Kurdish cities including Sanandaj, Pawe, and Marivan. Neighbourhoods of some villages and towns were destroyed as a result of the fighting between Kurdish rebels and Government forces . Ayatollah Khalkhali, sentenced thousands of men to execution after summary trials. The Kurds however continued to hold Mahabad as the summer fighting diminished, while Iranian-Iraqi tensions grew.
In late August 1980, Iranian army failed to sack Mahabad, held by the Kurds for ten months. They continued to hold it for five more months, as the Province of Kordistan became the theater of the Iran–Iraq War. Although President Banisadr ordered a cease-fire with the Kurds, following the Iraqi invasion, the Pasdaran ignored him, continuing their campaigns.
The confrontation between Tehran and the Kurds intensified sharply when the Iran–Iraq War broke out, as Iran faced Iraqi support to the Kurdish insurgency in Iran, while waging its own campaign to encourage risings of various groups within Iraq. It was initially assumed that Iraqi Kurds and their Iranian brothers would cooperate to exploit weaknesses on both sides. Not surprisingly, neither Baghdad nor Tehran was willing to accept that outcome. Rather, both sides insisted on organizing special loyalist Kurdish military units to participate in the war and to demonstrate allegiance to their respective states. Essentially, the Iraqi KDP and the KDPI were split, experiencing a series of internal conflicts.
The Pasdaran units had not been effective against the Kurds, until Revolutionary Guard backed units engaged into fighting with Iraqis and Iraqi-backed Kurds in late December.
While most of its military and political activity in Iran was greatly reduced after the 1979–1981 rebellion, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran had continued its opposition activities through 1980s. In 1989, the KDPI renewed its military activities, among which most notable was the 1990 fighting, in which some 300 Iranian soldiers were allegedly killed.
Since 1996, following an effective political and military crackdown, the conflict of KDPI against the Iranian government shifted to the political opposition abroad.
On 27 August 1979, in Sanandaj, Iran, 11 Kurdish prisoners were executed by a firing squad following a 30-minute trial under Shiite cleric Sadegh Khalkhali. Jahangir Razmi, a photographer for Iran’s independent Ettela’at newspaper, captured the execution on film.
Within hours an anonymous photo of the execution ran across 6 columns of the paper. On September 8, the newspaper was seized by the Foundation for the Disinherited, a state-owned holding company. On April 14, 1980, the photo won a Pulitzer Prize. In 2006, Razmi made public 27 images from the execution that he had kept hidden.